Friday, October 23, 2009

Epitaph, Elegy, and Eulogy


My neighbor loves holidays, and the Halloween decorations have been up for a couple of weeks. There are more tombstones, ghosts and goblins than I can count across the road. My own children are inordinately fond of Halloween, and their favorite way to celebrate is to find a really good "haunted house" or see a movie with a horror theme. They recently asked hubby to order something about zombies from Netflix for this year's celebration.

The tombstones of Halloween are phony, and literature, by definition, is fictional. Still, some of the greatest lines in all of western literature are from eulogies, elegies, and epitaphs.

Of course, a eulogy is the talk given at a funeral, which differs from a funeral sermon, in that it is a remembering rather than a message for the audience. Shakespeare's famous tragedy has Mark Antony eulogizing Caesar with these words, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." In a more humorous vein, George Carlin supposedly said, "I'm always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I'm listening to it." Despite the growing popularity of all hallows eve, most folks do not want to dwell upon death. Indeed one of my husband's friends says, "As long as you are not in the headlines or the obituaries of your local paper, you are doing okay." Hubby heartily agrees. A guy at my church quips, "It is better to be seen than viewed." Most of us feel that way.

The elegy is rare these days, since there are fewer poets, and fewer still who actually have talent. When I was in high school, I was struggling with my homework, and while standing at the counter in her kitchen, my mother proceeded to explicate Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." Only after she patiently led me through that poem did I realize the awe inspiring capacity of the educated mind. Mom did not finish college, but she was there to learn, and the knowledge she gained she used. Her explanation, done with no research at all, was superior to what most high school instructors could do. No one wrote an elegy for Irene, but when I remember all she did for me and for countless others, I covet the skill of someone who can write verse.

My parents are buried in one of those modern cemeteries, where the grave markers are so low that a bushhog can travel, unimpeded, across the graves. While efficient, such graveyards lack character. Older cemeteries have stones, large and small, marking the graves with sayings known as epitaphs. My sister enjoys visiting graves of famous and not so famous souls, reading the words of remembrance. Regardless of how the individuals lived their lives, the words used after death are usually flattering. As Thoreau stated, "The rarest quality in an epitaph is truth."

Others have said something similar, but Billy Sunday said, "Live so that when the final summons comes you will leave something more behind you than an epitaph on a tombstone or an obituary in a newspaper."

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